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Introducing the United Front

August 2, 2020

The Comintern’s First Formulations 1921-23, Part 2

The Communist International’s early presentations of united front policy are scattered through many texts written over a two-year period. I am posting seven of the most important such explanations in three parts. Here is Part Two: “Introducing the Policy.”

Part 1: Overview by Leon Trotsky

Part 2: Introducing the Policy

Item #2: “Theses on the United Front.” Adopted by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), 18 December 1921. 3030 words.

Item #3: “A United Front Is Indispensable.” Excerpt from appeal by the Comintern Executive Committee, January 1, 1922. 850 words.

Part 3: Elaboration and Implementation

‘Theses on the United Front’

Adopted unanimously by the Executive Committee of the Communist International, 18 December 1921.

1. The international workers’ movement is at present going through an unusual transitional period, which poses important tactical problems for the Communist International as a whole as well as each of its sections.

Basically, this stage can be characterised as follows: The world economic crisis is worsening. Unemployment is growing. International capitalism has launched a systematic offensive against the workers in almost every country, expressed above all in the capitalists’ rather open efforts to reduce workers’ wages and living conditions. The bankruptcy of the Versailles Treaty is ever more obvious to the broadest layers of working people. If the international proletariat does not overthrow the bourgeois system, a new imperialist war, or even several such wars, is inevitable. The Washington Conference confirmed that eloquently.

2. The revival of reformist illusions among broad layers of workers, which arose for a whole number of reasons, is now, under the blows of reality, beginning to give way to a different mood. After the end of the imperialist slaughter, the revived ‘democratic’ and reformist illusions of the workers (both privileged workers and also those who were backward and politically inexperienced) are withering even before they have fully bloomed. The course and outcome of the Washington Conference deliberations will shake these illusions even more. Six months ago, there was some justification in speaking of a general shift of the working masses in Europe and the United States to the right. Today, by contrast, the beginning of a shift to the left is undoubtedly perceptible.

3. On the other hand, under the impact of the mounting capitalist attack, a spontaneous striving for unity has awakened among the workers, which literally cannot be restrained. It is accompanied by the gradual growth of confidence among the broad working masses in the Communists.

A steadily growing number of workers are only now beginning to fully appreciate the courage of the Communist vanguard, which threw itself into the fight for the interests of the working class at a time when the vast majority of the working masses remained indifferent or even hostile to communism. A steadily growing number of workers are now becoming convinced that only the Communists have defended the economic and political interests of the working class, under the most difficult conditions and sometimes with the greatest sacrifices. Working-class respect for and trust in its uncompromising Communist vanguard is now beginning to grow again, since even backward layers of the workers have perceived the futility of reformist hopes and understood that without struggle there is no salvation from capitalist banditry.

4. The Communist parties can and must now reap the benefits of the struggle that they previously conducted in an unfavourable environment of indifference among the masses. But as the working masses gain confidence in the Communists as uncompromising and militant working-class forces, they display, as a whole, an unprecedented longing for unity. New layers of politically less tested workers, awakened to activity, yearn to achieve the unification of all workers’ parties and even of the workers’ organisations as a whole, hoping in this way to increase their capacity of resistance against capitalism. New layers of workers, who previously often did not take an active part in political struggle, are now undertaking to test the practical plans of reformism through their own experience. Like these new layers, significant sectors of the working class that belong to the old Social-Democratic parties are no longer happy with the Social-Democratic and centrist campaign against the Communist vanguard. They are now beginning to demand an understanding with the Communists.

But at the same time, they have not yet given up their belief in the reformists. Significant layers still support the parties of the Second and Amsterdam Internationals. These working masses do not formulate their plans and strivings all that precisely, but by and large their new mood can be traced to a desire to establish a united front, attempting to bring the parties and organisations of the Second and Amsterdam Internationals into struggle together with the Communists against the capitalist attacks. To that extent, this mood is progressive. Essentially, their faith in reformism has been undermined. Given the general conditions affecting the workers’ movement today, every serious mass action, even if it starts only with immediate demands, will inevitably place more general and fundamental questions of the revolution on the agenda. The Communist vanguard can win only if new layers of workers become convinced through their own experience that reformism is an illusion and that compromise on policy is fatal.

5. When conscious and organised protest against the betrayal of the Second International’s leadership first began to germinate, these leaders had control of the entire apparatus of the workers’ organisations. They utilised the principles of unity and proletarian discipline in order to ruthlessly stifle revolutionary proletarian protest and, without encountering protest, to place the entire power of the workers’ organisations in the service of national imperialism.

Under these conditions, the revolutionary wing had to achieve freedom of agitation and propaganda, whatever the cost. That is, it had to be able to explain to the working masses this historically unprecedented betrayal, one that the parties created by these masses themselves have committed and are still committing.

6. The Communist parties of the world, having achieved organisational freedom for their intellectual influence on the working masses, must now strive everywhere to achieve unity of these masses, as broad and complete as possible, in practical action. The Amsterdam leaders and the heroes of the Second International preach this unity in words, but do the opposite in practice. After the reformist compromisers of Amsterdam failed to organisationally suppress the voice of protest and revolutionary uprising, they are now looking for a way out of the dead end that they blundered into, and they are bringing the split, disorganisation, and organisational sabotage into the struggle of the working masses. One of the most important present tasks of the Communist Party is to catch in the act and expose these new blatant forms of the old treachery.

7. However, profound internal processes are now forcing the diplomats and leaders of the Second, Two-and-a-Half, and Amsterdam Internationals themselves to push the question of unity into the foreground. For new layers of workers, inexperienced and just awakening to conscious life, the slogan of the united front represents a genuine and honest desire to unify the forces of the oppressed class against the capitalist offensive. However, for the leaders and diplomats of the Second, Two-and-a-Half, and Amsterdam Internationals, raising the slogan of unity is a new attempt to deceive the workers and lure them, in a new way, onto the old path of class collaboration. The approaching danger of a new imperialist war (Washington Conference), the growth of armaments, the new secret treaties concluded behind the scenes – all this has not induced the leaders of the Second, Two-and-a-Half, and Amsterdam Internationals to sound the alarm, in order to achieve international unity of the working class not only in words but in deeds. On the contrary, these developments will only arouse inevitable frictions and divisions inside the Second and Amsterdam Internationals, along the same fault lines that exist in the camp of the international bourgeoisie. This is inevitable, because solidarity of reformist ‘socialists’ with the bourgeoisie of their own particular country is the foundation stone of reformism.

Those are the general conditions in which the Communist International as a whole, and each of its sections, must determine their attitude to the slogan of the socialist united front.

8. Given this situation, the Executive Committee of the Communist International considers that the slogan of the International’s Third World Congress, ‘To the masses’, and the general interests of the Communist movement as a whole demand that the Communist parties and the Communist International as a whole support the slogan of the workers’ united front and take the initiative on this question. In this, the tactics of each Communist Party must be worked out specifically in accordance with the conditions of that country….

[Theses 9–17 explain the policy’s implications for various countries in Europe and the United States.]

18. The Executive Committee of the Communist International considers that the main condition for this work is for the Communist Party to maintain absolute autonomy and complete independence. This applies equally, unconditionally, and categorically to every Communist Party, in every country, that arrives at any kind of agreement with the parties of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals. It includes complete freedom in presenting their point of view and in criticising the opponents of communism.

While Communists should accept the discipline required for action, they must not under any conditions relinquish the right and the capacity to express, not only before and after the action but when necessary while it is under way, their opinion regarding the policies of all working-class organisations without exception. This capacity must not be surrendered under any circumstances. While supporting the slogan of the greatest possible unity of all workers’ organisations in every practical action against the united capitalists, the Communists must not abstain from putting forward their views, which are the only consistent expression of defence of the interests of the working class as a whole.

19. The Executive Committee of the Communist International considers it useful to remind all sister parties of the experiences of the Russian Bolsheviks, which is the only party so far to have succeeded in achieving victory over the bourgeoisie and in taking power into its own hands. During the fifteen years that elapsed from the appearance of Bolshevism to its victory over the bourgeoisie (1903–17), Bolshevism never ceased in its unremitting struggle against reformism, or Menshevism, which is the same thing. But during these fifteen years, the Bolsheviks frequently arrived at agreements with the Mensheviks.

The formal separation took place in the spring of 1905. But under the influence of a tumultuous workers’ movement, the Bolsheviks formed a common front with the Mensheviks at the end of 1905. The second formal separation from the Mensheviks took place in January 1912, and it was definitive. However, between 1905 and 1912 there were both splits and unifications and semi-unifications in the 1906–7 period and again in 1910. These unifications and semi-unifications took place not just in the course of the factional struggle but also under the immediate pressure of the broad working masses, who had awakened to active political life and demanded that they be given the opportunity to test through their own experience whether the Menshevik path was really fundamentally different from that of the revolution.

Before the new revolutionary movement that followed on the Lena strike [1912], shortly before the outbreak of the imperialist war, a strong desire for unity was evident among the working masses of Russia. The leaders and diplomats of Russian Menshevism sought to utilise this striving for unity for their own purposes, in much the same way as is done by the present-day leaders of the Second, Two-and-a-Half, and Amsterdam Internationals.

The Russian Bolsheviks did not respond to the workers’ eagerness for unity by repudiating any united front. On the contrary. As a counterweight to the Menshevik leaders’ diplomatic game, the Bolsheviks advanced the slogan of ‘unity from below’, that is, unity of the working masses in the practical struggle for the workers’ demands against the capitalists. Experience has shown that this was the only correct response. And as a result of this tactic – which varied according to circumstances, time, and location – a large proportion of the best Menshevik workers were won over to communism.

20. Given that the Communist International is advancing the slogan of the workers’ united front and of agreements of individual sections with the parties and associations of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals, it cannot repudiate similar agreements on an international level. The Executive Committee of the Communist International made a proposal to the Amsterdam International regarding the campaign for famine relief for Russia. It repeatedly made such proposals in regard to the white terror and the persecution of workers in Spain and Yugoslavia. The Executive Committee of the Communist International is now making a new proposal to the Amsterdam leaders and the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals with regard to the initial work of the Washington Conference, which has shown that the international working class is threatened with a new imperialist slaughter.

So far, the leaders of the Second, Two-and-a-Half, and Amsterdam Internationals have shown through their conduct that in practice they drop the slogan of unity whenever it involves practical activity. In all such cases, the Communist International as a whole and all its sections will have the task of explaining the hypocrisy of the leaders of the Second, Two-and-a-Half, and Amsterdam Internationals, who prefer unity with the bourgeoisie to unity with the revolutionary workers. For example, they remain in the International Labour Office of the League of Nations; they are taking part in the Washington imperialist conference rather than organising the struggle against it.

However, the fact that the leaders of the Second, Two-and-a-Half, and Amsterdam Internationals reject this or that practical proposal of the Communist International will not induce us to abandon the united-front tactic, which has deep roots among the masses. We will develop it systematically and unwaveringly. In cases where a proposal for a united struggle is rejected by our opponents, it is necessary that the masses hear this, and thus learn who are the genuine destroyers of the workers’ united front. In cases where our opponents accept such a proposal, we must seek gradually to broaden the struggle and raise its intensity. In both variants, the attention of the broad working masses must be drawn to the Communists’ negotiations with other organisations, for it is necessary to interest the working masses in every stage of the struggle for the revolutionary workers’ united front.

21. In proposing this plan, the Executive Committee of the Communist International draws the sister parties’ attention to the dangers which it may entail under certain circumstances. Not every Communist Party is sufficiently developed and consolidated. They have not all broken completely with centrist and semi-centrist ideology. There are instances where it may be possible to go too far, tendencies that would genuinely mean the dissolution of Communist parties and groups into a formless united bloc. In order to apply this new tactic successfully and in the interests of communism, it is necessary that the Communist parties carrying out the policy be strongly and firmly united and that their leaderships be distinguished by ideological clarity.

22. In the groupings within the Communist International that are with greater or lesser justification termed rightist or even semi-centrist, there are without doubt tendencies of two kinds. Some forces have really not broken with the ideology and methods of the Second International, have not freed themselves from reverence to its earlier organisational strength, and are seeking semi-consciously or unconsciously a path to ideological agreement with the Second International and thus also with bourgeois society. Other forces, which struggle against formal radicalism and against the errors of the so-called ‘leftists’, seek to endow the policies of new Communist parties with more flexibility and capacity for manoeuvre, in order to enable them to win influence more quickly among the rank and file of the working masses.

Given the rapid pace of development of the Communist parties, these two tendencies appear from time to time to be in the same camp, indeed to some degree in the same grouping. The best way to reveal genuinely reformist tendencies inside the Communist parties is to implement the methods proposed here, which aim to win for Communist agitation a base in the unified mass action of the proletariat. When properly applied, this tactic contributes extraordinarily to the revolutionary consolidation of the Communist parties, both by educating through experience forces that are impatient or inclined to sectarianism and by freeing the parties of reformist ballast.

23. The workers’ united front should be understood as unity of all workers who want to fight against capitalism, including workers who still follow the anarchists or syndicalists. In many countries, such workers can assist the revolutionary struggle. Since the first days of its existence, the Communist International has followed a course of friendship with such working-class forces, who are gradually overcoming their prejudices and moving towards communism. It is all the more necessary to be attentive to them now that the united front of workers against capitalism is becoming a reality.

24. In order to finally determine the course of future work along the indicated lines, the Executive Committee of the Communist International resolves to hold in the near future a meeting of the Enlarged ECCI to include twice the usual number of delegates from each party.

25. The Executive Committee of the Communist International will closely follow every practical step taken in this difficult area of work and asks that all parties inform it of every attempt and every success in this area, giving full factual details.

Mike Taber, ed., The Communist Movement at a Crossroads (hereinafter Crossroads), pp. 254–7.

  1. A United Front Is Indispensable

Excerpt from appeal by the Comintern Executive Committee, January 1, 1922.

Previous experience has demonstrated even to the blind how right the Communist International was to tell you that the working class can achieve freedom only if it breaks the power of the bourgeoisie, establishes workers’ rule, and joins in close international alliance to clear away the ruins of war and begin the work of reconstruction. Yet we know how strong are the chains of the past and the influence of the capitalist schools, press, and church. We know well how reluctant and fearful the proletarian masses are of grasping power and forging their own future. We know how much the broad proletarian masses fear defeats like those suffered by Communist minorities in the struggles they have conducted to liberate the broad masses from their slave-like existence. We know how the capitalist press around the world seeks to rob you of courage by pointing to the wounds suffered by an isolated Russian proletariat in its duel with the entire capitalist world.

And so we say: You do not dare to launch the struggle anew. You do not yet venture to launch the struggle for power and for the [proletarian] dictatorship, arms in hand. You do not yet venture to storm the citadels of world reaction. So at least join together in the struggle for life itself, for a crust of bread, for peace. Join together in this struggle as a united force in a common line of battle; join together as a proletarian class against the class of exploiters and destroyers of the world. Tear down the barriers that have been erected to divide you. Take your place in the struggle – whether you’re a Communist, Social Democrat, anarchist, or syndicalist – in the struggle against generalised privation.

The Communist International has always called on workers who favour a dictatorship of the proletariat and soviets to join in independent parties. We do not take back a single word of what we have said to motivate the building of independent Communist parties. We believe that broader masses will become convinced over time that our course of action was correct. But despite everything that divides us, we tell you: Proletarian men and women! Join in a common front to struggle for what all of you recognise as a common goal.

All workers – whether Communists or Social Democrats or syndicalists or even Christians or Liberals – agree that they do not want to permit further wage reductions. They do not want to work longer hours, hungry and cold. And that is why we must unite into a common front against the employers’ offensive.

No workers – whether Communists or Social Democrats, whether syndicalist, Christian, or Liberal trade unionists – want to go begging day after day at the factory gates, seeking work. They all fear being thrown into the street. That is why they must join together in struggle against everything that increases joblessness.

What is more, unemployment will not disappear in the industrialised countries so long as the German proletariat, enslaved by the Entente and German capital, continues to slave away, driving down wages internationally, so that German capitalists can flood the world market with German goods at giveaway prices, in order to pay the tribute demanded by the Versailles Treaty.

Unemployment will grow if the capitalist world imposes subjugation and slavery on Soviet Russia, requiring it to accept continued famine or to defend itself arms in hand. Therefore, join in struggle for repudiation of the war debts, for ending the strangulation of Germany, for recognition of Soviet Russia and its reconstruction based on conditions expressing the interests of the international proletariat.

And the proletariat is harmed not only by unemployment. It is threatened by the anarchy of production, by the fact that the capitalists produce and export whatever they want. This impoverished world needs planned distribution of raw materials, planned utilisation, and control of prices. All of that is impossible unless the working class achieves control of production, unless bodies elected by the workers are able to monitor those who are disorganising production. The struggle for control of production is in the interests not only of the proletariat but of broad layers of the petty bourgeoisie, which suffers from the anarchy of prices.

All workers – whether Communists or Social Democrats, whether syndicalist or Christian or Liberal trade unionists – have an interest in preventing capitalist diplomacy from igniting a new world conflagration, and in taking on the task of struggling against capitalist armaments and intrigues.

Source: Mike Taber, ed., Crossroads, pp. 57–9.

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